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Throne of Blood

Wowza!

Throne of Blood (1957)

I’m generally not a fan of Asian filmmaking. Outside of the occasional bad horror movie or bad other-genre movie getting ripped by Mystery Science Theater 3000, the only quality Japanese films I have seen have been by Director Akria Kurosawa. In truth, I did not care for Roshomon, but I did thoroughly enjoy Throne of Blood.

I became aware of this movie a couple years ago when seeing a play of the same name in Shakespeare Town, Ashland, Ore. The program referenced that the play was based on this movie, which is a Japanese adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”. The play was stellar in an unsettelingly creepy way, and now that I have viewed the film, I see that it drew heavily from its inspiration.

A feudal kingdom is in the midst of war when we open. The Great Lord and his advisory panel are convinced the land will fall to its enemies, but are relieved when word arrives that two warriors have led victories on two battle fields. Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) and Miki (Minoru Chiaki) are the heroes whom we meet on their journey back to Spiderweb Castle. En route they become lost in the woods surrounding the castle, the paths through which are spiderweb-like so as to protect the kingdom from enemies.

Soon the men hear a wicked laughter in the woods and come across a pale, white-haired androgynous person (Chieko Naniwa) who sits in a wall-less hut and manipulates yarn on a spinning wheel. The evil creature –as the men see it– prophesizes that Washizu is already master of the North Castle and Miki the commander of Fort One. The spirit also predicts that Washizu will become Great Lord of Spiderweb Castle one day as will Miki’s son.

Upon arrival at Spiderweb Castle, the Great Lord bestows upon the war heroes just what the spirit foretold. As time passes, Washizu becomes increasingly ambitious and eager to fulfill his destiny. When the Great Lord visits the North Castle, his wife Asaji (Isuzu Yamada) –possibly the human embodiment of the evil spirit– convinces Washizu to murder the lord and blame it on his guards. The man then seizes the throne even though many suspect he killed his way to the top.

Once established as lord of Spiderweb Castle, Washizu sees enemies on all sides. When he must choose an heir, he considers selecting Miki’s –his best friend since childhood– son, but Asaji suggests she is pregnant. The evil spirit visits Washizu once more to assure him he will not lose in battle until the trees of Spiderweb Forrest rise up against him. That prophecy unfolds.

When watching a foreign film, it is often difficult to judge the acting quality, but in Throne of Blood it is evident we aren’t watching the same cast as Goke, Body Snatchers from Hell. Mifune as Washizu is particularly impressive in his body language and facial expressions. His wife, played by Yamada, brings the creepy, manipulative role to dark places. She seems to be constantly in a subordinated position on the floor, yet yields great control over her man. The performance of the evil spirit by Naniwa is heightened by special effects. The white makeup, fog around her and warped voice would send a chill down anyone’s spine.

If you are looking for a great way to start off your Halloween season, or just want to see a brilliant rendition of “Macbeth”, Throne of Blood is not to be missed. The picture is also well restored on the Criterion Collection DVD, which I rented; although, it offers little in the way of bonus features.

 Meet the witch (it arrives at minute 3):

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Feature: The Long-Take Movie

Unless you are a movie-as-an-artform type of fan, the editing in a movie often escapes us. In most cases, all of those cuts are meant to be invisible, at times subliminally conveying a message without us realizing it. And although cameramen might painstakingly struggle to film a scene in one long take, many audience members will fail to recognize the accomplishment.

Alfred Hitchcock was the first director to bring to fruition a movie done entirely in one long take, sort of. Moviemakers in the 1940s were limited by this thing called “film”, the actual celluloid that ran through the camera and recorded all the images later flashed before our eyes. So in those days it was not possible to capture a 90-minute movie without ever stopping the camera because the actual reel only held a certain amount of film. In the case of Rope, Hitchcock instead gave us the illusion of a cut-less picture by disguising the breaks between reels. He did succeed in never stopping the camera rolling while there was film left, but hid the transition between reels by focusing in on the backs of characters, creating a black screen that would prevent viewers from distinguishing a break in filming.

Fast forward 60 years to the age of digital film photography and the issue of celluloid can no longer hamper a filmmaker’s ability to keep the camera rolling. In 2001, a Russian director developed the idea of making a movie in one, 90-minute take all centered on the Hermitage museum. Although the idea of not having to edit any footage sounded easy to Aleksandr Sokurov at first, bringing about the actual filming of Russian Ark took several years of planning.

The film crew, cast of one main character and more than a thousand extras were given four days access to the museum. Three were used to remove items, insert new ones and prepare the lighting for the shoot. The actual filming had to occur on one day. Told as a dream, the story runs through 300 years of Russian history as significant characters float in an out of the scenes while the French marquis who is guiding the camera criticizes Russia’s lack of artistic culture. The camera itself is the second character, the dreamer, who converses with the marquis and himself through a post-production voice over.

Unlike Rope, which relied on a handful of characters getting their parts correct, Russian Ark protected itself from any on-screen mishaps by giving only one character specific dialogue to deliver. There is a certain lack of synchronicity in the voice over as at times the marquis’ pauses for response do not last long enough and the voice over runs on top of his dialogue. Also, the lack of echo in the voice-over dialogue makes it seem to us as though these thoughts are occurring in the dreamer’s (or our) head, especially because the marquis at times does not seem to hear what is said.

Moving ahead to today, the horror movie Silent House recently hit theaters as yet another 90-minute example of cut-free filming, or so it would seem. Technology has taken us so far forward that directors Chris Kentis, Laura Lau were able to mimic a single-take film while actually filming 10-minute segments and disguising the transitions in post-production. The result is a highly suspenseful picture that relies entirely on practical effects and lots of behind-the-scenes maneuvers.

The story contains one main character the camera follows, two family members and a couple extra appearances. The effect relies on a dark house and mostly up-close shots of the scene, which protects against mistakes that might occur in the background. Also, being a horror movie, the characters’ reactions to the events and dialogue do not have to be perfect, thus giving a more natural feel. The movie avoids the use of CGI to create scary creatures for us and was unable to show the result of one character’s bludgeoning because the application of makeup could not have occurred fast enough to fit within the long-take structure. Silent House instead relies on severe suspense rather than actual terrifying scenes to scare the audience. The long-take approach adds to this and gives the effect of things happening in real time. (Silent House Video Clip)

The use of long takes, and in particular movies that try to use nothing but, is highly demanding on all the collaborators in front of and behind the camera. Extensive rehearsing and extremely long retakes if mistakes are made can mean lengthy, demanding days for all involved. The endeavor is certainly one done more for artistic satisfaction than commercial gain or public popularity as the average theater-goer is blind to this work. I think we can see evidence of this as the technique has failed to gain popularity among film makers. Nevertheless, I have always been intrigued by the long take, and so a movie that does only that will have me at its beck and call time and time again.

Source: “In One Breath: The Making of Russian Ark” documentary; Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan

Goke, Body Snatchers from Hell

Gasser

Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell (1968)

     I should preface this review by saying, do not let the rating fool you; Goke, Body Snatchers from Hell is a bad movie. What makes it entertaining, however, is how comically bad it is. This Japanese horror/sci-fi flick presence with its “frights” a blatant moral message: War is bad, the Vietnam war in particular.

     A planeful of a variety of Japanese individuals and one English-speaking woman are in transit above a remote desert part of the country when the two pilots are alerted that a passenger might have a bomb on the aircraft. One pilot Sugisaka (Teruo Yoshida) calmly searches all bags and eventually finds a rifle in the back compartment and is immediately confronted by the villainous passenger (Hideo Ko), who orders the flight’s path to be changed. Just after this takeover, however, lights flash outside the plane and it is sent careening toward the earth. All passengers minus the other pilot survive the slow crash landing of a miniature airplane model, but their troubles are far from over.

     The hijacker takes flight attendant Kazumi (Tomomi Sato) as a hostage and heads out into the desert wilderness. The two eventually come across the landed flying saucer that caused the plane’s crash, and by standing in its mere presence, the hijacker’s face splits vertically along his nose and a mercury-looking goo oozes into the wound, thus making the man an alien slave. Once Kazumi explains the events to the rest of the flight passengers, some clashing emotions among the passengers (“I am a psychologist and it will be fascinating to see how all of you respond to this situation.”) results in one being pushed from a cliff and the hijacker/alien waiting below latches onto his neck like vampire, turning the man into a decayed corpse. The remainder of the film follows the endeavors of the passengers to survive against the alien.

     The moral of the story is that had humans not been so occupied with killing themselves via the atomic bomb and the Vietnam War, the aliens would never have had such a great opportunity to visit and take over the world. One will find it impossible to escape this message as a good amount of dialogue is devoted to furthering this theory. Outside of the moral, Goke‘s story is not a bad one and the cast of characters is fun. Besides the psychologist, we have an alien enthusiast, politician, weapons dealer (who resembles a Japanese version of Jeffrey Combs) and his slutty wife, and the American woman who is on the way to pick up her husband’s body (he died in the Vietnam War and they apparently don’t send bodies home). Despite being evil and having a nasty wound on his forehead, the hijacker looks remarkably like a Japanese Tony Curtis, with fantastic hair and dark eyelashes.

     I understand the print of this I saw at the horror movie marathon was a rare one, but I have also heard the it is not foreign to TCM, so although the likelihood of seeing Goke is low, I would recommend taking the opporutnity if it presents itself, if only for a laugh.

What to Watch Tonight: Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

I do not think there is a classic movie-loving person or anyone who has even moderately studied film on the academic front who is not aware and likely a fan of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The picture serves as a great example of silent, horror and German movies as well as an illustration of the German expressionist period.

Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)

Besides being a tale of murder and insanity, the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is also made especially eerie with its sets, designed by prominent Expressionist artists of the day. Depending on the copy you get your hands on, it might also feature tinting, a process by which the frames of film were tinted with a color –in this case three different ones marking daytime, night-time, Jane’s house, and the plot’s framing device. This also works to make everything look additionally off-center.

The story is framed through a man recounting the plot to another person. It is a story of love, murder and a somnambulist –that is to say, a sleep-walker. The Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) of the title operates a circus sideshow (which is also called a cabinet) at which he offers the somnambulist Cesare who will waken and answer any question asked. When one of our characters asks how long he will live, Cesare says not for long. The somnambulist later wanders off in the night to accomplish this task. Cesare is notably portrayed by Conrad Veidt who would go on to play many a Nazi in American-made films, most markedly in Casablanca.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of the most visually stunning films in history, which is quite a feat given how early into the history of motion pictures it was produced. The film’s use of chiaroscuro was largely created by having shadows painted directly onto the sets rather than producing them with lights. Although not horrifying by the standards of later fright films, the flick is certainly unsettling and thrilling and accomplishes all this without sound. So if you want to kick of the Halloween season right, and can stay up until 3:30 a.m. ET tonight/Tuesday morning, this is a must.

  • The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is set for 3:30 a.m. ET Oct. 4 on TCM.

The Blue Angel (Musical Countdown #53)

Wowza! 

The Blue Angel (1930)

The Marlene Dietrich of the German-made Der Blaue Engel is almost unrecognizable as the Dietrich that would reign supreme in Hollywood in the decades to come, and yet it was through this film that the prominent image of later years would begin to take shape. The deep speaking and singing voice are absent here, and the face and body are softer, but the role is unmistakably Dietrich.

     The Blue Angel was chosen by director Josef Von Sternberg from the 1905 story “Professor Unrat” by Heinrich Mann as prominent German actor Emil Jannings‘ first talkie. Austrian-born Von Sternberg established his home permanently in the U.S. at age 14 and was already established in Hollywood by the time this project arose. He was selected to guide Jannings through his first sound film because Hollywood was far ahead of Germany and its main studio Ufa at this time. Von Sternberg’s place at Paramount also was thought to be a decent link for the film to reach American audiences. The story, that of a prudish high school professor who finds himself seduced and then humiliated by a cabaret singer, appealed to the two men for separate reasons. Jannings reveled in characters who were subjected to humiliation and degradation as Professor Rath is in The Blue Angel. Separately, Von Sternberg’s disdain for the female sex had him often pursuing stories that illustrated the destructive nature of women. This “erotic humiliation” as one author put it* would be the subject of a number of Von Sternberg-Dietrich collaborations.

Jannings would eventually find himself quite unhappy with the picture as it transformed from a film featuring him to one featuring a new star. The role of Lola-Lola, the burlesque singer, was highly coveted and it was not easy for Dietrich to land it with certain members of the studio set against her. The Dietrich legend has often established The Blue Angel as the woman’s first movie, but that is far from the truth. She had been well established on the German screen for years in addition to stage roles. It was in a play “Two Neckties” that Von Sternberg saw in Dietrich what he wanted for his Lola-Lola. Her side role offered up an air of indifference and the costuming allowed for her figure to be evident as well –a necessary attribute for the scantily clad Lola-Lola. Von Sternberg began his work that would continue in their films to come of lighting Dietrich in a specific way as to bring out the best shapes of that unique face (the star would later be falsely rumored to have had dental surgery to create the hollows beneath her cheekbones). The director primarily lit her from above, which accentuated her brow and made smaller her nose. Three “dinkie” lights were used in close ups to slim her nose as well. A Rosher Bullseye lens was employed to bring the actress’ eyes into sharp focus while letting the rest of her features appear soft.

The plot follows Professor Rath, whose disrespectful students like to call Unrat or “garbage”, as he tracks the source of his pupils’ “pornographic” postcards to The Blue Angel night club. There he finds the subject of the photos, Lola-Lola, and is taken aback by her upfront sexual attitude while lolling in her dressing room. Having left his hat behind and taken Lola’s panties with him instead, Professor Rath is forced to return the following night. This time he defends Lola from the advances of man looking to turn the gal into a “champaign hooker” and Lola is impressed by his protection of her. After too much drink, Rath spends the night. Reaching school late the next day, his students mock his love of Lola, which they witnessed at the club, and the professor is asked to resign. He seeks Lola’s hand in marriage and takes to the road with the troop.

Five years pass and we see Rath applying clown’s makeup while Lola traipses about in housewife garb. Rath appears incredibly worn down and old while Lola still radiates youth. The troop manager/magician informs the couple their next stop is the Blue Angel where they are sure to profit off Rath’s hometown acquaintances coming out to see his new profession/disgrace. Rath tries to resist but Lola insists upon the performance. Once back at the Blue Angel, a french performer stays on when he eyes Lola and begins to chase her about in front of her husband. Now depressed into an unmoving trance, others must apply Rath’s makeup and wig and lead him onstage where he is thoroughly made a chump. Offstage, Lola is allowing the Frenchman to seduce her and spying this, Rath leaves the stage to strangle his spouse and fight others. The sequence is the most uncomfortable in an already unpleasant story as Rath crows as a crazed rooster while Lola and others scream and spectators take on expressions of horror. Rath eventually stumbles into his old classroom and dies gripping his desk.

Throughout the first half of the story an ever-silent and emaciated-looking clown figure often walks through the dressing room eyeing the initial contacts between the professor and Lola. His expression, emphasized by makeup, is one of sheer sadness as if he is witnessing what once happened to him at the hands of this siren, which perhaps is substantiated by Rath’s later stage role.

The English-language version of The Blue Angel was filmed simultaneously with the German one but the latter has become the preferred version as the strong accents of some actors make the English take difficult to understand at times. Dietrich is the most comfortable in the English rendition as her speaking of the language is quite adept and her character even suggests that it is her native tongue. Jannings can be a challenge to understand, and he mingled German in with his English lines further complicating matters. Many of the side characters’ lines and any background chatter is also maintained in the performers’ native language. Although the version destined for America cuts away from a stage performance by Lola that shows the woman’s skirtless backside, it maintains all other scenes depicting the undergarment-laden singer. Another variance is in the lines of the most notable song of the movie: Falling in Love Again. In German the words translate to “From head to toe/I’m made for love…for that’s my world/and nothing else at all.” The more cynical English version is “Falling in love again/never wanted to/What am I to do?/Can’t help it.”

Besides being a terribly unhappy story, The Blue Angel is essentially flawless. All performances are quite compelling and standout above the more technical aspects of the film that merely act to propel the story forward. As predicted, The Blue Angel did launch Dietrich’s international intrigue, and she took to Hollywood the night of the film’s premiere. She would leave behind a husband and daughter as she began work on other Von Sternberg pictures, but they would join her in Hollywood years later.

This post is part of the Musical Countdown onWonders in the Dark that runs through Nov. 10.

*Source: Marlene Dietrich (Applause Legends Series) by Alexander Walker

Ginger & Fred

Gasser

Ginger & Fred (1986)

     I’m not sure why I keep returning to Fellini films thinking the result will be different. I’ve seen more of the director’s films than any other Italian actor or director and yet I continually dislike what I see. I know I keep trying to enjoy them because Federico Fellini has more well-regarded/known flicks than most Italian director and TCM shows them with deference, so I have access.

     A Primer on Fellini and Me: Through my Italian film class we watched 8 1/2, which I did not enjoy nor fully understand. Next I embarked on a quarter-long independent study/research project on Fellini that did not involve watching any films but instead reading about them. Since that time I have seen La Dolce Vita, Giulietta degli Spiriti (Juliet of the Spirits), and I Vitelloni, and the the latter was the only I could tolerate. Fellini began Jungian analysis in 1960 after filming La Dolce Vita and before 8 1/2, and that semi-biographical work would be dripping with the influence. Jung placed much importance on dreams, which is an aspect apparent in much of the director’s work after 1960. Unfortunately, the approach also made his films, in my opinion, strange, creepy and difficult to understand.

    Thankfully, by 1986 the surreal approach Fellini took toward many of his films seemed to wear off, so Ginger and Fred is among his more accessible films. I should note that although I give this film a middle-of-the-road rating, I did not enjoy it. I do, however, acknowledge the creative use of themes to convey a message.

     Giulietta Masina, Fellini’s wife and standard female lead, plays Amelia, stage name Ginger. Marcello Mastroianni, the director’s stand-by male protagonist, is Pippo, or Fred. The two had a tap dancing (called “tip tap” in Italian) act in the 1940s that imitated Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, so they called themselves Ginger and Fred. The duo has been separated for 20-25 years now and are reuniting to do a television special for Xmas. We do not meet Fred until about 30 minutes in, so we stick with Ginger as she discovers that this TV special is a seeming freak show that will feature celebrity look-alikes, an admiral, a transvestite on trial for conjugal visits with male prisoners and others with strange stories to tell. Ginger is veritably out of place in her classic style of dress and disinterest in television. Once Fred arrives, the two stumble through rather unimportant events leading up to the show, during which they find little time to rehearse a routine they have not performed in decades. We question whether they will go through with it, but they pull it off.

     Ginger and Fred offers numerous themes: sex, commercialism, garbage and television. Televisions are in every scene, even on a bus, as it is apparent the Italian people cannot do without them (the TV special even features a woman they paid to go a month without TV, and who suffers a breakdown and describes the experience as akin to torture). Similarly the sound emitted by the televisions is so loud and the music so bizarrely modern that Ginger seems to be on another planet. The streets of whatever city in which this takes place is littered with piles of steaming black garbage bags, and one’s every view is equally blocked by a smattering of oversized billboards. Sex is overly present as well in the form of a topless woman peddling sausages on a billboard, the story of the transvestite lending “her buns” to the inmates, a cow with 18 teats to be featured on the freak show, or Fred’s frequent talk of arousal. Fellini certainly goes a long way to criticize and make fun of the Italian people’s apparent obsession with television and sex.

     Both Astaire and Rogers were alive when the film was released and Rogers threw a fit about it. She was offended that the film’s title was used without permission and was concerned the public would take it as a biography. It is unclear whether the dancer-actress ever saw the movie, however. The concept for the story was not based on the dancing partners, but instead was one that Fellini had developed for a television series (similar to the Screen Director’s Playhouse) that would feature Masina in short stories directed by a variety of people. Fellini was working on a story that seemed too grand an idea to keep short and so morphed into the feature film. Ginger and Fred is apparently considered the director’s last great work, but again, I’m not swayed.

Source: Robert Osborne;  Federico Fellini as Auteur: Seven Aspects of His Films by John C. Stubbs

Divorce – Italian Style

Ring a Ding Ding

Divorce - Italian Style (1962)

     I always enjoy a good foreign film, but I, like most people, do have a certain aversion to them. I would say the greatest problem with reading subtitles is that not only can you not leave the room while watching them and still catch the dialogue, but you also cannot doze off and listen with your eyes closed. Perhaps a more substantial complaint about subtitles, however, is that they distract from the action and cinematography. This is especially true for Italian film because the language is typically spoken troppo quickly, that one does not have time to look around after reading a line of dialogue.

     Nevertheless, I would never pass up an opportunity to see my favorite Italian actor: Marcello Mastroianni. For those who do not know about the wonderfully talented (and handsome) man, he could be described as Italy’s Cary Grant: well adept at both drama and comedy and still sexy when he went gray.

     Divorzio all’Italiana contains all the elements of an American romantic comedy but takes a rather bleak approach. One can understand how the base plot about a man who lures his wife to cheat so he can take a lover would attract the attention of U.S. filmmakers, but Divorce American Style five years later is less about infidelity and more about the hardships of single life for the separating couple.

     Divorce – Italian Style has other elements that would have been a sure taboo if they had shown up in the American version. Our protagonist, Ferdinando, is in love with his 16-year-old cousin. He is 37. What begins as mere longing on Ferdinando’s part, however, is consummated just prior to the girl being shipped back to Catholic school. Ignoring the troubles of incest and statutory rape, it takes little for the viewer to get on board with that romance, but the remainder of the film, while driven by that love, does not focus on it.

     After making love to his adolescent cousin in the lush garden outside the large, although rundown home occupied by both sects of the family, Ferdinando consults Italian law to discover how his crime could be punished. simultaneously, a trial proceeds to the conviction of a woman for shooting her husband for infidelity. Ferdinando finds the penalty is up to seven years for murdering a cheating spouse, however, Italian culture considers it a disgrace to the entire family, and those who associate with them, when a spouse is unfaithful. Given that Ferdinando has already comically fantasized about murdering his wife for us, he makes a natural leap to finding a suitor for su moglie, Rosalia.

     The chosen culprit is a man who was in love with Rosalia prior to and during World War II. He is now a mural restorer/artist, who Ferdinando commissions to mend some ancient paintings on the walls of one room of the house. He next sets up a microphone so he can monitor activities, which progress to his liking. Ferdinando hopes that when Rosalia feigns a headache while the rest of the family goes out, it will be his opportunity to catch her in the act and unload some bullets into her. Instead he returns to find his wife leaving with a suitcase, but is unable to beat her to the train. News spreads throughout the town and the family is shunned because Ferdinando has not defended his honor by killing his wife, but he is playing it cool. When he finally does discover where the lovers are hiding, it is Rosalia’s partner’s wife who shoots him, just moments before Ferdinando reaches them. Saying “What about mine?” he next shoots his wife.

     The story is a bit gruesome at times and not an obvious comedy. It certainly uses Hitchcockian humor that the British/American director inserted into all his films. Like a Hitchcock flick, Divorce – Italian Style deals with serious circumstances but is filled with goofy moments and circumstances that seem odd until the viewer realizes they happen for comedic effect, albeit dry effect. Ferdinando has a lively imagination that involves voice-over dialogue of a famed attorney pleading his case before the crime is ever committed, in addition to visual dramatizations of various deaths that could befall Rosalia. I’m not sure if Mastroianni’s appearance in the movie is also a joke, but it must be noted that he sacrifices his good looks in order to sport a mustache and side-parted lacquered hair that today we would associate with a child molester. Apt, aye?

     One final note: The greatest joke in the film is that when the entire family, minus Rosalia, go out, they are attending the opening of La Dolce Vita, a Federico Fellini film staring Mastroianni and released the year prior to Divorce. Granted the scenes shown are exclusively of the lustful Anita Ekberg, but nevertheless, an inside joke for the astute.

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